Burns

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Question

What is the best treatment for burns that's available over-the-counter?

Answer

The best over-the-counter treatment depends on exactly what kind of burn you have and how severe it is. You need to see a doctor if you have a first- or second-degree burn that covers an area more than 2-3 inches in diameter. If you burn is over a major joint like the knee or shoulder; over a major joint; or on the feet, hands or genitals, you also need to see a doctor. Third-degree burns need immediate medical attention.

First degree burns need to be soaked in cool water for at least 5 minutes. The water reduces swelling and pulls heat away from the burned skin. After soaking, treat the burn with a skin care product like an antibiotic ointment or aloe vera cream. You also need to protect the area and keep the air from it with a dry gauze bandage wrapped loosely around the burned skin.

For pain relief, take an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen (Motrin® and Advil®), acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or naproxen (Aleve®). Naproxen and ibuprofen also have the added benefit of reducing swelling.

For treating a second-degree burn, soak it in cool water for 15 minutes. If the burn is small, put cool and clean wet cloths on the burn for a few minutes daily. Then apply antibiotic cream or other ointments prescribed by your doctor or health professional. You should also cover the burn with a dry non-stick dressing like Telfa® and holding it with tape or gauze. Make sure you are also up-to-date on tetanus shots.

Make sure to change the dressing each day. To change the dressing, wash your hands with soap and water, then gently wash the burn with soap and water and apply antibiotic ointment. If the burn area is small enough, a dressing may not even be needed during the day. You need to check the burn each day for signs of infection like increased pain, swelling, increased pain and pus. If you see these signs, check with your doctor immediately. If avoid infection, do not break any blisters.

Burned skin will itch as it heals up, but despite the itching, do not scratch it and make sure to keep fingernails short. It will also be sensitive to exposure to sunlight for as much as a year after the burn, so apply sunblock to the area when outdoors.

If you have third-degree burns, you need to go to a hospital immediately. Do not take off clothing stuck to the burn and do not soak the burn in water or apply ointment. Cover the burn with a wet, cool sterile clean cloth or bandage. If possible, raise the burn above your heart's level to reduce swelling until you receive medical assistance.

Read more about burns in our Health Encyclopedia.

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